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Before and After

I was working on an article earlier as a submission to my friend’s nonprofit organization, which seeks to help others heal, find hope and try to be happy again after someone they love dies. She asked me to contribute a piece about grief and, as my story flowed, about living with grief.

As I was looking for photos to share with the story, I came across two family photos. The first one is from 2013 and is the last family photo we ever took with Penelope Joy. The second one is from April this year.

So many striking differences between the two photos — and not just in the amount of hair on Mr. B’s face or the color of my glasses. I don’t think I noticed before quite how much fear and sadness were living behind our eyes in that photo. Mr. B’s eyes, I think, say it best — though my blotchy face and misty eyes give it away as well. We were terrified. We were devastated. We were holding on to a very thin rope of hope. We were, in the instant this photo was taken, preparing to say good-bye.

Sometimes I feel like I have two families: my “before” family and my “after” family. So, in a way, these are my before and after pictures.

It’s not that Penelope Joy isn’t an important part of who we are now — because she’s written into every word of our story. It’s more that who we were then is so entirely different from who we are now — as individuals and together. So much of where we are in life could never have existed in the version of our story where Penelope Joy lives. Who we are now would never be if we didn’t have this very specific “before.” Hobbes and Dorothy wouldn’t be part of our story if our “once upon a time” didn’t start with Penelope Joy’s way-too-short chapter.

I miss that little girl with such fierceness, so much force of heart. Even as I celebrate the life and light Dorothy and Hobbes bring into our tale, I can’t help but think about our before. And how it’s directed our ever-after.

I’ll be sure to share the link to the full story about grief — Grief — once it’s posted on my friend’s site.

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The Club No One Wants to Join

When you lose a child you become part of a club that no one ever wants to join. In fact, most people would prefer to ignore it. Because recognizing it makes you realize that — in a blink — you, too, could become an unwilling member. Whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, accident or illness, your child’s death is an initiation. An initiation that lasts a lifetime — when every single life’s occasion, every milestone, is clouded by your loss. And the membership fees? They can devastate you — in every meaning of the word.

Some days, this club — that has so many members — is a lonely one.

Some days, though, you realize there are far too many people in it. And that realization, in and of itself, can be too much to bear.

While I’m only an 18-month member of this club myself, I do know that there is hope. And there are some things to help you make it through your initiation:

  • Know that there is no membership handbook. When you are a member of this club, you must find your own way to survive the grief. I will gladly help you by talking to you, talking with you, listening to you or just staying on the phone with you while you cry — or while you just try to keep breathing. I will offer support in anyway I possibly can. I will tell you what worked for me — because maybe it will help you, too. But there is no one way to get through this. And however you need to survive this is what you need to do.
  • Know you are not alone. While it’s a club that no one wants to be a part of — a club that I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to have to join — it sure helps knowing that there are others there who have gone through it, who have survived it.
  • Embrace the sadness and all the other emotions, too. It is because you have loved that you feel loss. Sadness and grief are another part of the continuum that is love. And love is sometimes the only thing that will carry you through.
  • Be prepared to be surprised. Some days you’ll think you’re doing great — you may go for days at a time without crying or really feeling your loss. But then, it will hit you. Like a wave. Out of nowhere. On the flip side, be prepared to be surprised by the light and laughter and happiness that you can feel — even within your grief. Some days, the smiles and laughs of another child will knock you down with grief. Some days, though (and these are my favorite), those smiles and laughs will bring you so much happiness. Because every child’s laugh contains your child’s laugh — if you really listen. Yes, I hear Penelope Joy’s laughter in the laughter of other children. And it brings me such peace.
  • Realize one thing: you don’t have to be strong. One of the things people will tell you when they hear your sad news is to “stay strong.” These people mean well. And they want to say something to help because they love you. But, if there’s one time in your life that you don’t have to stay strong, it is when someone you love dies. So, break down. Scream. Yell at God — if you believe in God. Cry. Hide under your covers. Immerse yourself in the fantasy world of books and movies. Do whatever you have to do to survive this. Even if it makes you feel weak.
  • Take it day by day. Every day will be different. Some will be sad. Some will be happy (and that’s OK!). Some will be a mixture of sad and happy — and everything in between. Whatever you’re feeling in every moment is right. Because feelings can’t really be wrong.
  • Find a way to honor your child. I help Penelope Joy live on through my writing. I continue to tell her story. And I talk about her — because her life matters. I will never, ever be afraid to talk about her — even if doing so makes other people uncomfortable. Penelope Joy is — not was — my daughter. And she forever will be. We also have a beautiful rose bush in our front yard (a Penelope rose bush, in fact) that reminds me of her every day. I want Dottie Lou — and any other future children — to know Penelope’s story. Because her story is theirs just as it is mine. We also celebrate her birthday with cupcakes at the beach — and we honor her angelversary. But other people have found ways to honor the children who’ve died: trees planted in their memory, garden stones, charitable organizations — you name it. Just find something meaningful to you.
  • Know that this will forever change you. Losing a child — however it happens — changes your life forever. You will never “get better.” The pain will dull, but the scars will last a lifetime. But, the thing about scars? They show that you are a survivor — that something has touched you deeply and left a mark forever. Just like your child and your love for your child.

While you never wanted to be part of this club, you are here now. It is part of your story. And I believe that even beauty comes from loss. From Penelope Joy’s death, so much goodness has happened — not only in my world, but the world at large. It would be very, very easy to wake up every day and choose the darkness, the sadness — and, in a way, I’d have every right to do so. Instead, I choose the light. (To be honest, some days it’s a very conscious effort to choose the light.) Because, truly, without Penelope Joy’s life — and her death — we wouldn’t have our Dottie Lou. It’s very hard to live in the darkness and sadness when I can, instead, live in the lightness of Penelope Joy and all of the beauty she brought into our lives.

But, before I could embrace the beauty, I had to get through the ugliness. I had to live the grief in order to live the light. So, take your time. Grieve. Live what has happened to you. The beauty will come — maybe when you least expect it.

Let me leave you with a quote that helped me through many days:

Max Lucado Quote

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Life’s Little Ripples

If you know me, you know I like to have some control in my life. I like to know what’s coming so I can have a plan A, B, C and D for it. But, if there’s one thing the last four years have taught me, it’s that life doesn’t happen like that — and it sure as heck doesn’t care what plans you have in place.

If there are two things I’ve learned in life, the second would be that life keeps on going — no matter what you’re going through.

Life Goes On

Mr. B and I talk a lot about “our story.” We recognize that so many things that have brought us to where we are today are horrible and sad and difficult. But, we also recognize that without the ripples left by those things, the beauty of who we are as individuals and who we are as a couple wouldn’t exist. We appreciate — and are so blessed — that, through it all, our life together has gone on. To amazing places.

Mr. B and I met in 2011 — after my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My husband only ever knew the “after.” And, at first, that was hard for me — knowing that Mr. B would never get to know my dad as he was. But, I don’t think I could have gotten through that “after” without my Mr. B by my side. I know that I met him when I did because that’s when I needed him most.

Lots of smooches

Because I met Mr. B when I did — and we got married when we did, just a year after we met — I got to have my dad walk me down the aisle and I got to share a dance with him at my wedding. Before the disease stole that from us.

On my wedding day with dad

Before we got married, Mr. B and I had always talked about waiting for a while to have a baby. But, after we got married, we barely got back from the honeymoon and decided we simply couldn’t wait to have a child together. That following January, we found out I was pregnant with our Penelope Joy.

And because we didn’t wait, my dad got to meet her — and got to love her — before the disease took that from him, too.

dad and penelope joy

And, perhaps the most difficult one to talk about — both the reason I’m writing this post and the reason I’ve been putting off writing this post for so long …

It is not lost on Mr. B and me that we have Sprout for one reason, and one reason alone: Penelope Joy.

Penelope Joy

If Penelope Joy had not been born, we may not have realized the immense capacity for love we had in our lives. If she had not lived, we would not have realized how full our lives could be.

At the same time, if she had not died, we would not have considered having another baby so soon. If Penelope Joy had survived, there is no way we would have gotten pregnant with Sprout. If our Penelope Joy had not become our angel baby, we would not be eagerly awaiting the arrival of our rainbow baby.

Maternity photo

You see, life is like that. You can look back with regret, remorse and sadness — wishing things had been different, wishing you could change things. But to wish away all of the bad things is to wish away the good things, too. Would I give everything I have to hold Penelope Joy just one more time? Yes, absolutely. But, I also can’t deny that a lot of beauty came out of her short little life, either.

To live in the darkness of her death would dishonor the light that was her life, too. She touched the lives of hundreds of people. And the ripples she left continue every day to change my world for the better. And, for a 38-day-old infant, I’d say that is an amazingly full life.

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2014 — Highlights (and Photos) from my Year

I’ve seen a lot of people wishing to wash 2014 away from their memory, and it makes me sad. Was 2014 the best year of my life? Yeah, probably not. I mean, we celebrated Penelope Joy’s birthday — the first of many, many more without her. We also marked her one-year angelversary. Oh, yeah, and my dad died.

But I could never tell you that 2014 was an empty year. Or a year I wish to wash from my memory bank. There is something to be gained every year — and something to be celebrated. And, even if it wasn’t a great year when compared to some of the other years of my life, it deserves its space in my history book. And it deserves to have its tale told.

January

  • After many months, Mr. B finally convinced me that I wasn’t meant to be an apartment gal for the rest of my life
  • I finally found my running legs after Penelope Joy’s birth — and death — surprised by how much emotional recovery I had to do before running felt “right” again

    A Saturday run

    Scenes from my chilly Saturday morning run.

February

  • We purchased our first house

    Our first picture of our first home

    Our first picture of our first home

  • I celebrated my 33rd birthday

March

  • We moved into our house and immediately began turning it into our home
  • I attended some social media training in San Diego for work
Checking out the sights during a break from business.

Checking out the sights during a break from business.

April

photo with Piper

Our first photo with Piper.

May

  • Rosebud and I traveled to Indianapolis to see our friends, The Secret Sisters, perform

    The Secret Sisters, once again, wow The Rosebud Sisters.

    The Secret Sisters, once again, wow The Rosebud Sisters.

  • I ran the Fifth Third River Bank Run 5k for the Alzheimer’s Association of West Michigan

    My traditional post-race selfie.

    My traditional post-race selfie.

  • We found out that Sprout was on her way
  • A downed power line gave us quite the scare
An exciting way to welcome spring at our new home.

An exciting way to welcome spring at our new home.

June

  • We took a long weekend getaway to “The Island” with T and W and our crazy dogs
On our way to The Island.

On our way to The Island.

July

  • We took Piper up north to run (and run and run) around the farm
A stop-light family photo

A stop-light family photo

August

  • Piper passed her Canine Good Citizenship Test
Our Canine Good Citizen — silly as ever!

Our Canine Good Citizen — silly as ever!

September

  • Gary’s Gang raised thousands of dollars for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s

    Gary's Gang at the Walk to End Alzheimer's

    Gary’s Gang at the Walk to End Alzheimer’s

  • We celebrated Penelope Joy’s birthday with cupcakes and hugs on the beach

    Cupcakes for our precious Penelope Joy's 1st birthday.

    Cupcakes for our precious Penelope Joy’s 1st birthday.

  • We celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary by trying out a new restaurant we both agreed wouldn’t make our list of regular dining establishments

October

  • We marked the anniversary of Penelope Joy’s death
  • We found out that our Sprout is a girl and, at the same time, heard the high-risk pregnancy doctor say “your baby is healthy, and we don’t want to see you anymore”

    Sprout's a girl!

    Sprout’s a girl!

  • We said good-bye to my dad
Hugs, smiles and laughter were always a constant with Dad.

Hugs, smiles and laughter were always a constant with Dad.

November

  • We got a very positive report from Sprout’s echocardiogram and learned that her heart looked, as far as the scans could reveal, “perfectly healthy”
  • We joined my mom and lots of loud, wonderful family for Thanksgiving up north
Nothing like family and laughter on Thanksgiving.

Nothing like family and laughter on Thanksgiving.

December

  • We celebrated our first Christmas in our new home

    Christmas at Casa B

    Christmas at Casa B

  • We said good-bye to 2014 and hello to 2015 with “Lilo & Stitch,” a slice of cheesecake and a smooch

By no means is this list exhaustive. In fact, I know of many wonderful things I left off the list. But to include everything that happened in a year? It’s a list that would run long. Too long. Know this, though: the most important thing that happened this year was that we continued to live our love story. And we continued to learn about love and its many, many forms.

2014 was a transformative year for me personally. There was loss and love. Fear and hope. Dark and light. And through it all, I changed. I continue to change. My life continues to transform as I continue to live it and take it all in — the good and the bad. And I look forward to that continued transformation and growth in the new year.

As I thought back on my year and that word, “transformative,” I wondered how other people might describe their year. So, I asked. Friends and family from various social media platforms — and countries all over the world — shared with me the one word they would use to describe their year. It’s really interesting to look at that collection of words and how similar and how different they are from each other. See what I mean?

2014 Word Cloud

It’s fun to look back at 2014 — appreciating that while it may not have been a perfect year, there was good that came with it, too. With the dark, there is light. With the fear, there is hope.

No one knows yet what 2015 will hold. But I do know that it will be a very, very special year, indeed. We’re starting our year off with our continued countdown to Sprout. Due Feb. 3, Baby Girl Baker is already making an impact on our daily lives. And I simply cannot wait to hold her for the first time and touch her sweet toes.

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Grief After Another Goodbye

I feel like most of my posts of late have started the same way:

Hello, readers, it’s been a while. So much has happened since I last wrote.

I’ve seriously started about 17 posts in my head. But by the time I got home, I forgot half of them. The other half? Well … they didn’t feel “right.” So, let me start by saying this:

On Oct. 21 — four days after the anniversary of Penelope Joy’s death — my dad left to join his darling granddaughter. We knew he was going to die. And we knew it was coming soon. But, that doesn’t make it any easier. In some ways, it makes it harder — we’ve been saying goodbye for a long time. In some ways, it makes it easier — because we got to say our goodbyes.

Living the rest of my life without my dad present … well … it makes my heart heavy. He was my roots — along with Mom, of course. But, in a way, he was my wings, too. Always there for an encouraging word: “Be yourself. Ain’t no other way to be.” Always there for a hug – boy did he give good great hugs. He was also pretty good about calling all of us on our crap — and making sure we all laughed while he did it.

Dad

Dad being silly. Also known as “Dad being Dad.”

And I miss him. Every single minute. And I wish he were still here. But not just for me.

Let me tell you: losing a parent when you’re pregnant is pretty awful. Because I’m not only mourning for me or for right now. I’m mourning for all of the “coulda beens” and “shoulda beens.” And, if I were being completely honest, I’d tell you that every time I look at my nieces and nephews I get a little jealous on behalf of my unborn Sprout. And when I see pictures of my siblings with their kids and Dad, part of my heart hurts. Because those kids all got to have a Papa. And they all got to know his twinkling, mischievous eyes — and the way he’d smile just so before saying or doing something he knew would embarrass them. And they all got to be scooped up in his arms and given a big ol’ hug. And they all knew that he loved them to the moon and back.

But Sprout? All she’ll have is stories of a man she’ll never know. And no matter how many times we tell her how much her Papa would have loved her (because I know, without a doubt, that he would have), he’ll remain a ghost.

Sprout will be hearing stories about people who, to her, will only ever exist in the abstract: her strong, loving Papa and her feisty, fighting older sister. To her they’ll be no more than characters. But to me, they’re the biggest losses in my life so far. And the last two people I think about every night before I go to sleep — except on those nights, of course, when Sprout is using my internal organs as a punching bag.

I still grieve for Penelope Joy every day — sometimes in little ways, sometimes in big ones. The grief isn’t like it used to be, of course. Like, every time someone in my life has a baby girl, I feel sad — no matter how happy I am for that person. The fact that I’m pregnant with a little girl of my own only slightly diminishes the sadness. Because I miss my Penelope Joy. And Sprout is not a replacement for her. Penelope Joy will always be my oldest daughter. But the sadness doesn’t always bring tears.

And I imagine I will mourn the loss of Dad every day, in little ways and in big ways. And every time I see pictures of grandpas and their grandbabies, there will be sadness. And it’s OK. Because grief is OK. Some other things about grief? Well:

  • There isn’t just one kind of grief. There are different kinds of grief for different types of loss. And the grief I feel about Penelope Joy’s death is very different than the grief I feel about Dad’s.
  • No matter what they say, no one knows your grief. Because grief feels different to every person — and it shows itself differently, too. They may have experienced a similar loss. But they cannot know your grief. (That doesn’t, however, mean that they can’t empathize or offer comfort.)
  • There isn’t really a wrong way to grieve — just as there’s not a right way. Some people don’t grieve with tears or any kind of outward expression. Some people go through boxes upon boxes of tissues. Some people keep busy and keep moving. Others can barely hold themselves together. It is no one’s place to judge another person’s grief.
  • Grief is not a “feeling” that ever goes away, like pain or fear or, even, sadness. It is always, always there — maybe not always noticeable, but always there. Sometimes it’s a quiet fall drizzle, just dampening the leaves enough to know it’s been there; sometimes it’s a raging thunderstorm with rains so fierce they threaten to wash away everything you hold dear.
  • Grief doesn’t take the place of other feelings and emotions. It can live as nicely beside happiness and joy as it can anger and sadness.

That’s where I am now. Taking the grief alongside the happiness. Because my life? It is full of wonderful things. Like this growing Sprout — who keeps getting happy, healthy reports from doctors. Like my family — who all have done what we do best: love. Like our crazy dog — who brings laughter into our life daily. And, of course, like my Mr. B — who loves me (even more than he should sometimes) and is never afraid to show it.

Quote about grief

 

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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

With the anniversary of Penelope Joy’s death coming up next week, I’ve been feeling very emotional. About a lot of things. I’ve also been very thoughtful about a lot of things.

Like, how, when I think of Penelope Joy in the afterlife — whatever that may be — I picture her as a precocious 5-year-old little girl with brownish-red braids — one down each side of her head — and bangs that she’s constantly blowing out of her eyes.

She has freckles. A lot of them, but mostly when she’s in the sun.

And she uses words that are much bigger than she is. Words like “ubiquitous” (her mom’s favorite word). And “euphoric.” And “appalling.” And “anticlimactic.” And “bountiful.”

She loves books. So very much. And her world is full of them. Big ones. Chapter books. Books that are supposed to be much too advanced for her. But they’re not.

It’s weird. I only knew her as a baby. A very small, fragile baby. And I’ll never know what she would have been like as a little girl. Or a teenager. Or a young woman. But, in my head and in my heart, she has somehow become a bright, shiny, amazing little girl.

And I miss her so much.

The other night I had a dream, set in Penelope Joy’s new world. I saw her welcoming my dad to what was then his new world, too. “Papa! Papa! You made it! I was so worried about you. Come see what I can do!”

And she skips off holding my dad’s hand. But she’s just a little too fast, so she drags him behind her as he finds balance on his new legs. He’s a lot younger, too, in this place. And he stands up tall and straight. And the light has returned to his eyes.

At the end of the dream, Penelope Joy is sitting on my dad’s lap. And he’s smiling so, so very big. And she’s laughing.

It may all be a dream. All of it. I don’t know how I feel about heaven and the afterlife. Does it exist? I can’t know. No one really can. Nor can I say it doesn’t exist. I know that when we got Penelope Joy’s ashes back in that teeny tiny plastic bag inside that teeny tiny cardboard box, that wasn’t our daughter. We said good-bye to her in the hospital room. What happened after that, I may never know.

But the thoughts of her giggling and laughing as she skips along bring me peace. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly as it’s supposed to be.

Little Prince Quote

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On Finding Peace with Death

I’ve been quiet. Really quiet. For several reasons.

Work has been busy. Really busy. Good busy. Exciting, new, challenging busy. But busy nonetheless.

More than that, though, there are a couple of things on my mind that are quieting my muse.

Pregnancy. It’s different this time. I spent much of the first trimester nauseated. And I’m still feeling exhausted. Yet, many nights, unable to sleep. There are, understandably, a lot of mixed emotions and feelings with this pregnancy. Mostly, joy and excitement. But Mr. B and I both look to each other for constance reassurance and support as we continue to work through nerves and uncertainty as the pregnancy continues. (So far, all looks good, though, and every ultrasound so far has brought positive news.)

But, mostly, it’s my dad. You see, my dad? He’s dying. And it’s not in the all-of-us-are-dying sort of way.

I mean, he probably won’t die tomorrow. But, he won’t ever get to meet Sprout. And Sprout won’t ever get to meet him.

The nurse thinks that, before long, Hospice will be called in. And then? It’s a matter of time.

So, this post, it’s not one of my more uplifting, optimistic posts about life and love. I mean, it is — in a way. But, it’s about death. And I am crying my way through writing it.

Death

Penelope’s death changed me in many ways. Not the least of which is in how I view death. Some people may think I’ve become colder, more indifferent when death comes knocking.

Rather, it is quite the opposite.

When Penelope Joy died, something inside me shifted. Her death was … devastating … in a way that only losing your child can be devastating. It forever changed me. It changed my life as I knew it. And it changed Life as I knew it.

It also changed Death.

Deaths of people I loved have, in the past, made me angry at the world for stealing yet another person from me whom I loved. Dearly.

When Penelope Joy died, though, I learned something critical. Critical to my survival. And critical to my world view. Death is part of life. It is a beautiful part of life. Yes, it can be tragic. It can pull the ground right out from under your feet, leaving you trying to regain your footing for weeks, months, years. Forever.

But, as Mr. B and I held Penelope Joy in our arms as she took her last breaths, I have never felt more at peace, or more reassured, than I did right then. Her death released her from a suffering she could only know in this world. And, in a way, it released us as well. Watching your daughter struggle day in and day out is heart-breaking. It is exhausting. And it can destroy you. Knowing that we were able to send her out of this world in peace saved us.

Would we have done anything in our power to save her life? Yes. Absolutely. We’d have gone to the ends of the earth and spared no expense. But when it became clear over and over again that all we were doing was extending her suffering for our benefit, letting her go was the only choice we could make. It was then that we learned a valuable lesson. It was then that we truly, truly understood the sacrifice of parenthood.

It was then that we understood Death.

And I think that’s why the looming death of my dad has not destroyed me. Am I sad? Terribly. Do I cry? Often. Do I wish I could spend every waking moment by his bedside — soaking up as many glances into his sparkling blue eyes as possible? 100 percent yes.

But, in a way, Alzheimer’s disease took my dad from us a long time ago. When he was diagnosed, he lost his will to fight. He gave in to the disease, and it quickly obliged — taking from him every piece of the man who was my dad.

We are left, after a 30-some-day free-fall into the abyss of Alzheimer’s disease, with a dying man, unable to form a real sentence, unable to get out of bed, unable to recognize most of us. He is not the man who raised me. He is not the man who, just 10 months ago, glowed with excitement at meeting my precious Penelope Joy. He is barely even a shadow of that man.

Grammy and Papa with Penelope Joy

Dad couldn’t stop grinning any time he was near Penelope Joy.

IMG_20131001_162908_403

This will forever be one of my favorite memories of my dad and Penelope Joy. And I will carry it with my in my heart. Always and forever.

Dad’s death, whether it happens before I hit “Post” or in a few weeks or in a couple of months, will set him free. While he was still able to form thoughts and sentences, we all knew he hated what the disease was doing to him. We all knew he didn’t want to live like this.

So, when Alzheimer’s disease does to him what it does to every single person* who has the disease, my dad will finally be at peace. Like Penelope Joy, he won’t suffer anymore. And he won’t be living a life we all know makes him miserable.

And there is comfort in that. And there is peace.


*I want to take this opportunity to provide just a little education about Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There are approximately 500,000 people dying each year because they have Alzheimer’s. And every person — every single one of them — who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease will die with it. There is no cure. There is no treatment. There are a lot more eye-opening statistics where these came from. Please take some time to learn a little more from the Alzheimer’s Association

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